The hunt for Fabergé

  • Stories
  • 21 July, 2019
The pink serpent Fabergé egg.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Carl Fabergé had turned a small family company into a world leader in the jewelry business, with his creations even enjoying popularity among the European leaders of that time. The House of Fabergé produced 250,000 items within 45 years (1872–1917), including diamond tiaras and cigarette cases, silverware, rings and earrings – all beautiful creations from the hands of the finest stone-cutters who were using complex stone art techniques like enameling or Florentine mosaic.

But today when we say “Fabergé”, most people will think of eggs. Not eggs for cooking, but the ones featured in movies like Octopussy and Ocean's Twelve. Originally there were even 71 of those jeweled eggs, with 65 still being traceable today. Those mysterious eggs were once created as decorative Easter eggs, ordered as a special gift by the wealthiest families of that time.

The best-known Fabergé eggs are the Imperial Easter eggs, presented by the Russian emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II to their spouses and mothers. Out of the original number of 54 Imperial eggs, 48 have survived to the present day. The vast majority of them are kept safely in state museums. The missing 6 Imperial eggs are only known by means of old photographs and descriptions, and officially considered lost. So don't think twice when you encounter a Fabergé egg somewhere far away on a flea market.

What makes Fabergé eggs so special?

What is so valuable about these unusual eggs? Of course, first of all the incredibly painstaking work of the masters, but also the materials used. A closer look at a Fabergé egg reveals various enamels, gold, silver, pearls, jade, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, in other words – the most magnificent gems.

But the original idea of the Fabergé egg was not only to present an egg with a magnificently blinking cover. Behind this precious facade there was space for an Easter surprise. Think of an insanely expensive matryoshka, a miniature copy of the royal crown, a ruby pendant, a mechanical swan, a golden mini-copy of the palace, 11 tiny portraits on an easel, a model of a ship, and there was even a manicure set in one of the lost eggs. Perhaps the most famous miniature is an exact replica of the coronation carriage of Tsar Nicholas II, hidden inside one of the best-known Fabergé eggs, the Coronation egg.

The Hen egg, made of red enamel and gemstones, treasuring a golden chicken inside. The egg was designed for the Russian industrialist Alexander Kelch.
The Hen egg, made of red enamel and gemstones, treasuring a golden chicken inside. The egg was designed for the Russian industrialist Alexander Kelch.

The rise and fall of Fabergé

The Frenchman Gustav Fabergé laid the foundation of the company in 1842, by opening a jewelry workshop in the former Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. The tendency towards artistic metalworking was mainly shown by his eldest son, Сarl Fabergé. The young Carl received his first knowledge on this field from Peter Pendin, a friend of his father's. And after having spent eight years abroad, studying in Paris, Dresden and Florence, Carl had turned himself into a real goldsmith, having mastered the most advanced techniques of that time. As a skilled stone-cutter and expert in cloisonné enamel, the young man of 26 de facto superseded his father as head of the company on his return to Saint Petersburg.

Carl Fabergé was known as an outstanding entrepreneur, leading the company to a glorious future with over 500 employees. The jewelry empire consisted of renowned design studios, workshops, and stores with branches in amongst others Moscow, Kiev and London.

The Bay Tree egg – also known as the Orange Tree egg – is richly decorated with nephrite and enamel. The egg was produced for the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
The Bay Tree egg – also known as the Orange Tree egg – is richly decorated with nephrite and enamel. The egg was produced for the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

This wonderful age of Fabergé products ended abruptly when the Soviets came to power. In 1918, a decree was issued to eliminate private property in the USSR. After nationalization of the House of Fabergé, Carl fled the country, like many others with foreign origins. Unfortunately, the misery continued for the Fabergé family, with most of the jewelry lost in the chaos of the red terror, and Carl passing away two years after his escape from the Soviet Petrograd.

Cheaper Fabergé products

After the Soviet revolution, the Fabergé family lost touch. Two sons settled in Paris and founded the company Fabergé & Cie. By the end of World War II, they found out about the Spanish businessman Samuel Rubin, an exporter of soap and olive oil, who had founded Fabergé Inc in the United States in 1937. Rubin not only produced perfumes under the Fabergé brand, but had also registered the Fabergé trademark for jewelry. Long trials turned out unprofitable for the Fabergé family, and were eventually concluded with a settlement that the American Fabergé trademark could only be used for the production of perfume.

The widely available souvenir eggs, also known as 'Fauxbergé'.
The widely available souvenir eggs, also known as 'Fauxbergé'.

The hunt for the Fabergé eggs

Fine jewelry and incredibly expensive materials have not only pleased the wealthiest, but have also inspired many stories and films. Perhaps the most “hunted” piece of jewelry is Fabergé's Imperial Coronation Egg.

In James Bond’s “Octopussy”, the Fabergé egg was the only clue in the mystery of agent's 009 death. When the egg appears at an auction in London, it is James Bond himself who is trying to bid up the price in order to figure out who wants to buy the egg at any cost. And having the skills of 007, James Bond of course also swapped the real Coronation Egg for a fake one during the auction.

Hollywood's "Ocean's Twelve" was fully dedicated to stealing the Imperial Coronation Egg, with the most skilled thieves in the world being challenged to get their hands on this unique piece of Fabergé jewelry. Producing an ordinary metal copy of the Imperial Coronation Egg for shooting Ocean’s Twelve cost $ 4,000. Can you imagine how much the real egg would cost?

The most expensive egg in the whole world is the Rothschild Fabergé egg, which was sold for $ 18 million. Covered with pink guilloche enamel, it combines a clock with the mechanical surprise of a diamond-strewn cockerel that crows and flaps its wings every hour. Remarkably enough this egg does not belong to the Imperial collection, as it was privately ordered and stayed within the Rothschild family for the entire 20th century. When the egg appeared at Christie's, it was acquired by the Russian businessman Alexander Ivanov, who donated it in 2014 to the Hermitage Museum, where you can still see it in all its glory.

Bringing Fabergé back home

A distinctive event in the history of the Fabergé collection and the Easter eggs was a 2004 auction by Sotheby’s, where the collection of Malcolm Forbes – assembled over the past 30 years – was being sold. The plan was to sell the collection in three stages. The final sale included the Fabergé items of the collection, and was due on April 20–21, 2004. However, two months before the auction, Sotheby’s announced their cancellation. The reason was the purchase of the entire collection by the Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg.

For an auction house with a 250-year history this event was unprecedented. The price has not been announced officially, however, market experts estimate a price of over $ 100 million. With this surprise purchase Vekselberg became the owner of the most significant Fabergé collection in the world, containing the second-largest set of Imperial Easter eggs after the Moscow Kremlin Museums.

Since November 2013, this magnificent part of the Fabergé collection can be admired in the Fabergé Museum in the Shuvalov Palace in Saint Petersburg. It was opened by the Link of Times Foundation, whose founder is Viktor Vekselberg. Its main idea is to repatriate items of cultural significance which were removed from the country in the turbulent 20th century.

The majestic main staircase of the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg.
The majestic main staircase of the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg.

The Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg

With 4,000 objects of applied art including jewelry, icons, memorabilia, porcelain, souvenirs and silverware, the Fabergé Museum contains the world's largest collection of works by the House of Fabergé. Many of the works belonged to the Imperial family and European royal families.

The greatest value in the collection is represented by nine Imperial Easter eggs, created by Fabergé for the last two Russian emperors. All of them are masterpieces of jewelry art, as well as unique historical objects related to the rule and personal life of Alexander III and Nicholas II.

All this magnificence is located inside the 200-years-old Shuvalov Palace, and displayed across 10 halls of 4,700 square meters in total. For a deeper exploration of the history of the famous jeweler, consider booking a tour at the Fabergé Museum. The museum is open every day.

The building of the Shuvalov Palace, where the Fabergé Museum is located.
The building of the Shuvalov Palace, where the Fabergé Museum is located.

What else to do besides the Fabergé Museum?

Our Streetwise map of Saint Petersburg reveals that the Fabergé Museum is located on the Fontanka riverbank in the very centre of the city. There you find yourself at walking distance from other amazing palaces like the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace or Saint Michael’s Castle. Head for the nearby Belinskogo Street for a nice late afternoon drink, or have a look for some exclusive Russian souvenirs in the Eliseev's Store on Nevsky Prospect. There is simply too much to explore in Saint Petersburg.

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